Originality in spy dramas is becoming rather hard to find in both television and film. How many ways can you tell the same story, anyhow? However, the new DVD of the BBC two-part mini-series Restless from Acorn Media, shows how you can put a new twist on familiar themes.
Set in both wartime Europe and North America of the 1940s and 1970s Britain, the show tells the story of a mother and daughter’s attempt to uncover the truth of what happened to the former during the war. However, before that can begin, Sally Gilmartin (Charlotte Rampling) has to convince her daughter Ruth (Michelle Dockery) of three things: Sally was a British spy in WWll, her real name is Eva Delectorskaya and somebody is out to kill her.
In order to cure her disbelief Delectorskaya allows her daughter to read the file she has compiled which tells the story of how she became a British spy in the first place. The Delectorskaya family were Russian immigrants living in Paris before the war. Young Eva’s (Hayley Atwell) brother was working for British intelligence until he was beaten to death by French fascists. After his death Eva was approached by Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell) with the offer of British passports for both her and her father if she agrees to come to England and become a spy.
While this information, and further descriptions of her life in WWll, convince Ruth her mother is not the woman she thought she was, it doesn’t begin to explain why she thinks anyone is hunting her in the present. That portion of the story is slowly but surely revealed over the course of the two part mini series. It turns out there was a traitor in Delectorskaya’s department, who was responsible for the deaths of many of her team, and almost succeeded in having her killed during the war.
While there’s no way of revealing much more of the storyline without being a spoiler, the action in the 1970s revolves around mother and daughter searching for her former boss, Romer – played by Michael Gambon in the present. Delectorskaya claims he’s the only one she can trust and he should be able to answer the question as to who is after her.
What makes this series work so well is the combination of exemplary scripts and fine acting we’ve come to expect from these types of productions. As the young versions of Romer and Delectorskaya Sewell and Atwell are wonderful. Underneath Sewell’s calm and suave exterior one can sense a well of hidden tensions and stresses. Even when he’s supposedly relaxed, his motto of “trust no one, not even me” makes him constantly alert. You can imagine him sleeping with one eye and ear open.
Atwell is particularly impressive. We see her progress from grieving sister to an eager and excited young spy going about her training and her work. However, we gradually see her realize how dirty the job can be as she has to use herself as bait to seduce a top level American civil servant (Before 1941 the British were doing everything possible to convince the Americans to enter the war). However, the scales only really begin to fall from her eyes when she begins to believe there’s a traitor on her team.
Atwell does a wonderful job of showing her character’s gradual hardening. We can see it mainly in her eyes, as the excitement at doing her job is gradually replaced by first a guarded watchfulness and then fear. As one by one the rest of her team are killed she must find a way to hide herself away in order to stay alive, her moves become more and more calculated. Everything she does is designed to make sure she won’t be found.
In the present, Rampling does a magnificent job of showing how this watchfulness has turned into full-scale paranoia. She’s jumping at shadows, seeing threats in everything. Yet there’s a core of steel to her still, and if someone’s out to get her she’s determined to not go down without a fight.
For those used to seeing Dockery as her genteel character in Downton Abbey Ruth Gilmartin will either be a welcome change or a shock. Here’s she’s a single mom, and PHD student whose thesis is on the history of German anarchism in post war Germany. The father of her child has connections with the German urban terrorist Badder Meinhoff group and she’s every inch the intellectual, free spirited, liberated woman of the early 1970s.
She does a wonderful job of showing someone coping with the fact her mother isn’t who she said she was and then steeling herself to helping her track down Romer. Along the way she learns, that no matter how strong she thinks she might be, it’s nothing compared to her mother. Learning your mother has killed people, and is obviously capable of doing it again if necessary, isn’t easy.
Restless is not your typical spy thriller. Yes there’s action and intrigue, but as with other really good British shows of this type there’s just as much paperwork and cerebral activity as anything else. However, that doesn’t reduce the amount of tension the show is able to successfully build or slow down the pace of the action. Without a doubt this is one of the best shows of its type released in recent years.
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